Ohio has a long history of drilling in shallow, vertical oil and gas wells. But the rapid expansion of horizontal, deep shale drilling has raised many questions about how well ground water resources are insulated from potential contamination from the drilling process. Ideastream’s Michelle Kanu has this story about communities that are taking steps to protect their water before drilling begins.
For the past 42 years, Fran Teresi has seen the old oil derricks that dot the country landscape in her tiny hometown of Garrettsville in Portage County. Teresi never gave too much thought about whether those old wells could harm her drinking water. But publicity about the recent boom in horizontal drilling for natural gas – especially regarding potential hazards - has caught her attention.
Teresi: “There’s a lot of concern about surface spills with the chemicals that are being used, pipe casing that might leak, cement failures.”
As a member of the village’s board of public affairs, Teresi is charged with overseeing the local water and sewage treatment plant. With horizontal drilling ramping up in townships right next door, she and other local officials decided to set up a program to monitor Garrettsville’s water supply just in case.
Teresi: “What we’re trying to do is establish baseline water quality, what is normal right now for our area, and then if things change after the big drilling companies come in, we will at least have baseline data to compare it to.”
Teresi says they sought the advice of her local health department, and hired an environmental consulting group to figure out how to get started with the testing. She says they turned to the state for help, but didn’t find much.
Teresi: “There aren’t any grants out there, and there weren’t any guidelines as to how a village would set up a water monitoring program, so basically we started in the dark and felt our way along.”
Teresi and the village of Garrettsville aren’t the only ones feeling their way in the dark. Communities in Carroll, Athens, and Mahoning County are also taking steps to set up programs to protect their water before drilling comes to their backyards.
Ted Auch is a researcher with FracTracker, an environmental advocacy group that collects data on the shale industry. Auch says many Ohioans are frustrated that the state hasn’t set aside funding or developed any preventative programs to protect local water supplies before drilling begins.
Auch: “So the communities have said fine, well, we’re going to do this, we’re going to take matters into our own hands.”
To be clear, the Ohio EPA does require that public water systems measure their water quality on a semi-regular basis, but most of that is for bacteria and chemicals commonly used in agriculture and industrial processes.
Auch says he’d like to see the state offer more to help communities to test their water for problems related to drilling, including better guidance on what chemicals to test for, and how frequently.
Auch: “It would be nice for the state to at least set up some sort of protocol for seasonal collection tests, you know, when in each season you should collect, what kind of methodology you should use to collect water samples, to set up some strict protocol that can be standardized across Ohio.”
But Michael Baker, head of the EPA’s division of groundwater, takes a different view. He says his agency does provide a fact sheet outlining different levels of testing communities can do. But he says the kind of proactive testing Auch is talking about probably isn’t necessary.
Baker: “We’re not out there necessarily recommending that they go out and do baseline sampling because in most cases, public water systems have a pretty good handle on what their baseline water quality conditions are. “
Baker adds that the EPA will increase their monitoring and intervene if there ever is a problem.
That doesn’t satisfy Garrettsville resident Fran Teresi. She says if anything ever were to happen to Garrettsville’s water, the board of public affairs would have to foot the bill—and the legwork—of finding a new water supply.
Teresi: “In the industry that is the solution. In a little village that is the problem. How you handle something that huge that’s going to cost billions of dollars really shakes a board of trustees to the core, and that was another reason we decided to set up the water monitoring program.”
Whether natural gas drilling really poses a serious threat to groundwater is still an unanswered question. The federal EPA has previously stated there haven’t been any documented cases of contamination, but it says research currently underway should yield more definitive results. Its final report is expected in 2014.